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Before the Fig Leaf: Christian Response to Nude Statuary 8 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Case Studies , trackback

It’s about time that I give some archaeological examples of early Christian iconoclasm. I start with one of the less ferocious cases.

There were many different motives for Christians to smash pagan sculpture, and one of them was an aversion to nudity. This is clear from a series of sculptures, whose genitalia have been mutilated. A good example is this statue group of the Three Graces:

Three Graces
A statue group of the Three Graces, Antalya Museum. Photo: Niels Hannestad (scanned slide).

The group is from the Southern Baths at Perge. These baths seem to have been the scene of systematic attacks from iconoclasts, and there are several sculptures from this site, including a Marsyas, a Meleagros and a Horus, that all appear to have been mutilated in much the same way. The baths were excavated mainly in the 1980s, and are still awaiting full publication. Only when they are published, will it be possible to date these attacks more accurately.

N. Hannestad. 1999. “How did rising Christianity cope with pagan sculpture?”, pp. 173-204, in: E. Chrysos & I. Wood (eds.) East and West: Modes of Communication. Proceedings of the First Plenary Conference at Merida. The Transformation of the Roman World vol. 5. Leiden.
N. Hannestad. 2001. “Castration in the Baths”, pp. 66-77, in: N. Birke et al. (eds.) Macellum. Festschrift Robert Fleischer. Mainz. (Online version here).
M.E. Özgür. 1987. Skulpturen des Museums von Antalya I. Istanbul.


1. Jason - 8 July 2005

Like your blog & topic, which loosely corresponds to my own “thesis-in-progress” – Jewish/Christian encounters (literary) w/ an iconic world (pre-constantine) … I’m mainly interested in exploring a discourse on statues.

FYI … the University of Michigan hosted a conference on the sculptural environment of the Roman Near East last fall, the proceedings of which are currently with the publisher (Peeters). Two interesting papers on iconoclasm may be of interest to you: David Frankfurter “The Vitality of Egyptian Images in Late Antiquity: Christian Memory and Response” and John Pollini “The Imperial Cult in the East: Images of Power and the Power of Intolerance.” Wish I could tell you when the book will be out … hopefully soon!

Good luck with your project.

2. Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm » Scythopolis I: A Mutilated Statue of Venus - 7 November 2005

[...] I have been looking for parallels to the mutilated sculptures at Perge, since they will be at the centre of a chapter on the body and society in late Roman society. One group of material comes from Scythopolis in modern Israel, where the excavations of the Eastern Bathhouse revealed a series of sculptures. I will be discussing this material and other pieces from Scythopolis today and over the next few days. [...]

3. Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm » A Mutilated Aphrodite in Istanbul - 24 May 2006

[...] I have previously mentioned the mutilated statue group of the Three Graces, now in the Antalya Museum, that is going to form part of the core argument of my chapter 5 “Before the Fig Leaf: Body & Society in Late Roman Perge.” The statue group is only one of several statues from Perge’s South Baths that have been mutilated in various ways. [...]

4. Iconoclasm » Ortwin Dally on Late Antique Sculpture - 15 January 2007

[...] Dally’s talk “Pagan Sculptures in Late Antiquity: Between Destruction and Preservation” was also interesting. He mainly discussed preservation and restoration of earlier statues and only very briefly the production and installation of new works. He focused on the statuary from baths and public buildings in Miletus, Ephesus and Aizanoi – some of which I’ve discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) and also talked about in San Diego. Several (nude) statues from these sites were moved to baths and nymphaea in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, but not before their genitalia had been mutilated. To the right, you see an example of a mutilated Venus from the Baths of Faustina at Miletus and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. From Dally’s discussion, these ‘castrations’ may seem like a phenomenon limited to Asia Minor, but there are also comparanda to the practice outside this region, e.g. on Cyprus (Salamis) and in the Levant (Scythopolis). A few examples are also found in Italy, so it’s not an exclusively eastern practice either. [...]

5. Paul R Wilson - 29 April 2009

I am GLAD I am NOT a fundamentalist nut Christian. I am an Unitarian modernist liberal (I say the last 2 as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and various Sacred Name cults are Unitarian -and are cruel in their strictness).